One of my favorite authors is Margaret Atwood, the Canadian sci-fi writer who has penned “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Robber Bride,” and “Oryx and Crake.” The first on that list is the book that initially hooked me, but I think “Oryx and Crake” holds a special place on my bookshelf for perhaps the silliest of reasons–it mentions a character who’s obsessed with Alex the parrot. Naturally, I could relate.
Atwood’s mention of Alex in her book made more sense to me when I met Irene Pepperberg, and she mentioned offhand that she was friends with Atwood. What at first seemed a coincidence was actually a charming tribute.
A commentary piece in the New York Times published earlier this week, a eloquent eulogy to Alex, also mentions Atwood as well as Douglas Hofstadter:
In his recent book, “I Am a Strange Loop,” Douglas Hofstadter proposed that the richness of a creature’s mental representations be used to take the measure of its soul.
The unit Dr. Hofstadter whimsically proposed is the “huneker,” named for James Huneker, a music critic who wrote that Chopin’s 11th Étude, in A minor, (Op. 25) was so majestic that “small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should not attempt it.”
If your average person’s soulfulness weighs in at 100 hunekers with a hamster down near 10, Alex hovered somewhere above the halfway mark. But there were moments when he seemed to reach for the top.
I do not believe in any spiritual approximation of a soul, however I don’t think that is what Hofstadter was trying to measure, but rather the sum total of a creature’s consciousness, ideas, culture, sense of self, sense of others….the idea of a place in the universe. It is fascinating that while Dr. Pepperberg strove her whole career to study avian communication and learning models through asking specific questions of Alex, perhaps the most interesting questions are ones that cannot be posed directly. Could a parrot be trained to report mental states, like Kanzi or Koko the apes?
The extent to which my own African Grey, Pepper, can do so is minimal, but I haven’t really trained him to do so either. For example, he has learned to tell me when he’s scared by saying, “Its all right” over and over, because it was what I used to say to him when he was obviously scared of something as a small bird. He associates that sound with feeling fear, and only says it when presented with fearsome stuffs (to a bird, this might be a new toy, or a new place, or accidentally crashing into the couch).
One of the most heartbreaking memories I have, and this I am sure will follow me until I die, was when Pepper became tangled up in the string that hangs off the blinds. I had never thought of it as a danger to him, but one day he managed to get ensnared in it and, terrified, attempted to fly away. This only got him more and more entangled in it until his feathers were being pulled to weird angles, which I’m sure was very painful. I was trying desperately to free him, but he was confused and in pain, and tried to bite me whenever I came near. I was incredibly panicked. Finally he stopped struggling and screeching and just hung there pitifully saying to himself, “Its all right, its all right, its all right.” At that moment I was bawling and went and got scissors and immediately cut the blinds string and then untangled him. He calmed down before I did, as I had had a small glance into how awful it must feel to see your child in pain, and feel helpless to know what to do. He crawled up my arm, put his beak near my cheek as he often does, and said, “Its all right.” I stopped and looked at him, he didn’t seem upset or scared anymore, or in pain. In fact, he seemed fine. But then it struck me, maybe he was saying it to me? Sure, probably a stretch, and lots of other explanations, but at that moment it truly seemed that Pepper had sensed my fear and sadness and simply recognized it the only way he knew how.
The end of the NY Times article is quite sad, asking “What was it like to be Alex that last night in his cage? We’ll never know whether there really was a mind in there — slogging its way from the absence of a cork-nut to the absence of Alex, grasping at the zeroness of death.”
However, I think that one day we will know, perhaps not what Alex thought in his final moments, but what are the content of other minds, filled with other thoughts? I believe we will have Alex to thank for that, and Irene Pepperberg, and anyone else that keeps asking questions that perhaps aren’t easily or straightforwardly answered, but are so very, very interesting and beautiful.